Two of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race's most accomplished mushers are defending the race that is now under renewed attack by animal rights activists after 100 sled dogs were killed at a tour business in Canada in an unrelated event.
"By being quiet we become guilty by association. We have to speak up," said four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser, who four times has received the race's humanitarian care award. Buser is running in his 28th Iditarod and was leading the race Tuesday.
While People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals targets the Iditarod each year, the slaughter of the dogs in Canada has energized their efforts to end the race that began in 1973. The dogs belonged to Howling Dog Tours Whistler Inc., and were killed last April by a company employee after bookings slumped from the 2010 Olympic games in Vancouver.
The owner of the business thought the dogs would be humanely destroyed but the employee shot and slit their throats. The killings were revealed after the employee applied for workers' compensation for post-traumatic stress.
PETA senior campaigner Virginia Fort said the incident is another example of the inherent cruelty in dog mushing and sled dog racing.
"The best way to stop this abuse from happening is to stop supporting the Iditarod," she said.
Iditarod Trail Committee executive director Stan Hooley said PETA is seizing on an unfortunate and unrelated incident and unfairly connecting it to the Iditarod in its ongoing campaign against the race.
"The Iditarod is an event that I think stands above and beyond its commitment to dog care," he said.
PETA says on its website that, "Mushers routinely abandon, shoot, bludgeon, or drown dogs when they become ill, don't run fast enough, or are simply unwanted."
Last month, PETA said its appeal to the Transportation Security Administration resulted in the agency deciding against running a job recruitment drive during the race.
TSA defended its decision, saying officials often use geographically targeted recruitment to find new employees to work in local airports. However, the agency said it never intended the Iditarod effort to be viewed as sponsorship of the race.
In an interview prior to the race, Buser said PETA's claim that mushers routinely kill dogs that don't make the grade or have outlived their racing days is false. He points to his own kennel as an example of what is considered proper care of sled dogs throughout their lives. All his retired racing dogs are adopted, he said.
"I have dogs literally from the next door neighbor to Australia," Buser said.
He acknowledged that problems can arise when a kennel owner becomes ill or the expense of caring for dozens of dogs is overwhelming. That was the case about a year ago when the mushing community became aware of a situation in central Alaska with a person who had about 50 dogs. Before it became a legal matter, all the dogs were placed in new homes, Buser said.
Iditarod musher Aliy Zirkle, who also has received the race's humanitarian care award, said in her more than 20 years of mushing she has never known of dogs being shot, bludgeoned or drowned. She acknowledged there was a time when racing sled dogs were considered more "disposable," but she said that view is outdated.
People who think dog mushing -- and by extension the Iditarod -- is cruel don't understand the passion that sled dogs have to run, she said.
"To say that dog mushing and Iditarod specifically is cruel is totally off the mark," Zirkle said.
Abuses in the Iditarod have occurred. In 2007, Ramy Brooks, one of the race's most popular mushers, was suspended for two years for striking his dogs with a wooden trail marker when they refused to run. He hasn't entered the race since.
Jerry Riley, the 1976 champion, was banned for life in 1990 for mistreating his dogs. Riley said he was trying to break up a dog fight when he accidentally hit a dog with a steel snow hook. Despite the ban, Riley was allowed back in the race nine years later.
Iditarod chief veterinarian Stuart Nelson Jr. said care of Iditarod dogs has improved tremendously over the years. The dogs are required to pass an extensive pre-race exam that includes a blood chemistry panel and an electrocardiogram. He said about 40 vets will be out on the trail and will conduct more than 10,000 examinations during the race.
Race supporters have said that with more than 1,100 dogs starting the race, a dog death during the two-week competition is statistically inevitable. Nelson said the average number of dog deaths per race is about two, depending upon how many teams are entered.
Most of the deaths are due to gastric ulcers and cardiac arrhythmias. Dogs have died for other reasons, including blizzards, being hit by a snowmachine and becoming entangled in line during a turbulent plane ride.
No dogs died in the 2010 race, which Nelson said was largely due to research on the gastric ulcer problem. Most of the mushers now give their dogs drugs to treat excess stomach acid production during the race.